Behind the German Neo-Nazi Phenomenon
These aren't Hitler youth but unemployed males caught between Bonn's policies and new populations
A SPECTRE is once again haunting Europe. It isn't the spectre of communist revolution but the ghost of right-wing extremism called to life by the fascists of the 1930s. These haunting forces are not confined to Germany. Their dark shadows have fallen on Britain and France, yet they continue to cast a special veil of "shame over Germany," as Theo Sommer observed in the weekly, Die Zeit.The Federal Republic (FRG) has witnessed more than 1,300 assaults against its resident foreign population since the 1990 creation of a Social and Currency Union; 500 of those have occurred since mid-September. Incidents range from gang attacks on individuals in subways and shopping areas, to fire-bombings of their temporary quarters, consisting of tents, container ships, and community centers. Most dramatic was the Molotov cocktail bombardment of a dormitory occupied by 70 Yugoslavs, Mozambiquans, and Turkish workers on Sept. 17 in Hoyerswerda, Saxony. Instigated by 150 young male radicals who battled with the police for several hours, each window shattered by steel balls and cobblestones drew the applause of 150 bystanders. A town of 70,000 "with no disco, no cinema, and bars that close at 10 p.m.," Hoyerswerda will lose 5,000 jobs at the end of this month due to shutdowns in its major indust ry - coal mines. These outbursts of violence correlate with prognoses regarding the after-effects of 57 years of authoritarian rule in the East. More unsettling to German-watchers are the subsequent election results in the once liberal north, 6 percent for the self-avowed right-wing German People's Union (DVP) in Bremen, over 10 percent in Bremerhaven, added to parallel foreigner-bashings in the Western cities of Freiburg, Saarlouis, and Neumunster. Three-fourths of all attacks have been in former West Germany. Equally troubling has been the failure of the Kohl government to respond in a manner that would undercut societal approval of the extremistscause." The chancellor reiterates, "Germany is a land friendly to foreigners and will remain so." Yet the rhetoric of his advisers carries an ominous, inflamatory ring, e.g., warnings that a "flashflood" of immigrants will produce a "society of mixed inferior races." Partisan debate over steps to reduce the constitutional protections afforded immigrants since 1949 - in particular, asylum-seekers - add legitimacy to the claims that now more than ever, "Germany belongs to the Germans." The intensity of xenophobic reactions is disproportionate to the number of foreigners, legal and illegal, seeking a better life in Deutschland. Foreigners comprise less than 80,000 of the 15 million residents in the East; 100,000 have been deported since July 1990. Curiously, opinion polls suggest there is greater antipathy toward Turkish workers in east than in west - although none reside there. West Germans appear more hostile toward would-be Polish settlers than do former East citizens. Foreigners acc ount for 12 percent of Bremen's population. In Hoyerswerda, the figure was less than half a percent. At the insistence of western states, incoming waves of immigrants must be "distributed" among the old and new states - a policy that assuages irate voters in the prosperous west, while fueling resentment in the depressed east. The root causes of extremism are found in the disruptive process of reunification itself. Bonn officials refer to the "official unemployment rate" of 12 percent in the east, ignoring 2 million easterners who have been permanently laid off ("part time work" at zero hours). The unemployment rate in the former GDR is about 40 percent - 3.8 million out of a labor force of 8 million, higher than in the Great Depression. Since the termination of subsidies and price controls effected Oct. 1, rents in the five new states have risen 200 to 500 percent. The influx of 131,000 "German" refugees and 113,000 asylum-seekers during the first seven months of 1991 contributed to an overall housing shortage of 2.5 million units throughout the FRG. Die Treuhand, a federally subsidized "holding company" responsible for the privatization of 10,000 formerly state-owned industries, reports it has been bilked for 1.2 billion DM (roughly $7 0 million) by unscrupulous western "buyers." Rising crime rates in Berlin have cost the once-and-future capital over 4.5 billion DM to date - funds that should have gone for modernization. Youth gangs have been in a legal-moral and socioeconomic vacuum for two years. The abdication of the authoritarian regime put an end to the policy of state-guaranteed apprenticeships, jobs, and accustomed mechanisms of social security, without providing skills needed for free-market competition. Sensational media coverage of their assaults has rendered "rowdies" the center of national attention. This substitute for treatment of their ills increases their desire to shock observers by adopting Nazi slogans and attire. Those responsible for the abuses and mismanagement of the past 40 years will, for reasons of age and juridical constraints, escape prosecution. The original skinheads, heavy-metal fans, and "Nazi-Rocker" groups were formed in the mid-'80s, as an underground opposition to the sclerotic Honecker regime. Incapable of punishing the truly guilty and unable to fault the conservative government they helped freely elect, they now seek to blame their "no future" prospects on those one rung beneath them on the soc ietal ladder. There are significant historical differences. In contrast to the 1930s, leadership among extremist groups is highly diffuse and fraught with personality conflicts. Second, there is a generation gap between the organized far right (e.g., the Republikaner) and the street-fighters who evoke public applause. Kohl is reluctant to part company with older, hard-line voters who persist in their imperialist claims to the "lost eastern territories beyond the Oder-Neisse border" (the June 1991 treaty with Poland notwithstanding), and want to resettle "German-blooded" residents of those areas. Young radicals are more intent on "defending the homeland" against further invasion by the "culturally alien" job-competitors expected to pour into the land of economic miracles with the 1992 elimination of European frontiers. Third, the neo-right resurgence has a clear gender gap. Rather than attract women with promises of a glorified motherhood role, a position skillfully manipulated by Hitler, the new extremists frighten off female counterparts with macho-misogynist behavior and speech. The exception is found among female Turkish youth gangs in Berlin, organizing in self-defense against neo-Nazi assaults on their neighborhoods. Last but not least, attacks against defenseless foreign men, women, and children have triggered a counter wave of solidarity displays among historically conscious citizens. Some 10,000 demonstrators in Cologne bore placards which read, "Dear foreigners, please don't leave us alone with these Germans." The Network of Peace Cooperatives held a nationwide "action day against xenophobia" for Nov. 9, which attracted 100,000 demonstrators, and marked the second anniversary of the Wall's opening exactly 53 year s after the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht attacks. A survey in September found 44 percent accepting the presence of foreigners in Germany, a figure which rose to 60 percent in October. Paradoxically, a different survey found that 38 percent of the westerners, compared to 21 percent of their allegedly more extremist eastern counterparts, expressed empathetic "under- standing" for right-wing tendencies. This author contends that efforts to nip the extremist problem in the bud must be grounded in the immediate implementation of the following measures: First, the crisis at hand demands a clear declaration on the part of the Kohl government that acts of xenophobic aggression will meet with swift and direct punishment - a practice officials of all partisan persuasions have been quick to adopt vis-a-vis leftist terrorists, "squatters" in Hamburg and Berlin, and anti-nuclear demonstrators in Wackersdorf. This must be backed by crowd-control training and police reinforcements for the new states, where many of the old guard have been fired or discredited by past ties to STASI. Second, rather than cater to taxpayers-qua-voters in anticipation of the 1994 elections, the authorities in Bonn should initiate a federal apprenticeship/job corps program encompassing all east Germans under the age of 25. Third, the FRG must pursue a more rational course of immigration and assimilation policies, emphasizing the national benefits to be derived from the "multicultural society" which will become the European reality of 1992.
Tomorrow: Germany's immigration policies